Turning Fantasy into an Impactful Reality

Charlene Oldham Legal Leave a Comment

Gerri Kornblut, General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer at Dwellworks, explains how fictional lawyers spurred an interest in law that would lead to a legal career in which she could impact the next generation of lawyers

Like many young people, Gerri Kornblut learned about lawyers from the likes of fictional barristers including Atticus Finch and Perry Mason.

“When you think of an attorney when you’re younger, in high school, you think of all the TV shows. You think of the trial attorneys,” said Kornblut, now General Counsel (GC) and Chief Compliance Officer at Dwellworks LLC. “It seemed very exciting to be in the courtroom arguing a position, and either prosecuting or defending. So that’s what really got me interested.”

Kornblut planned her senior project around shadowing a judge in the Cleveland area. Even as a high school student, she discovered that while being a lawyer isn’t all about courtrooms and criminals, she really enjoyed the intellectual challenges and advocacy aspect of the profession.

“I think what really attracted me was the idea of helping people,” she said. “Because as an attorney, irrespective of the area of the law you practice in or what role you have, it all involves helping people navigate the complexities of the law.”

Kornblut’s youngest daughter, age 21, is now traversing some of those same waters, having recently shadowed an Assistant U.S. Attorney General and an Assistant County Prosecutor and decided to attend law school next year, with the hope of becoming a trial attorney.

“I think, for a younger person, if they have any interest, they should reach out to either a judge or attorney and shadow them,” Kornblut said. “There are a lot of attorneys out there who would love to provide information to a younger person and help them determine whether the field is right for them.”

Her high school project and other experiences taught her that the same is true for most professionals. Generally, people want to see others succeed, so young people should start building networks and identifying mentors early in life. That way, those support systems are in place when they could use perspective and guidance.

“If you need some career advice,” she said, “take the initiative and reach out to someone who is in the position to help you.”

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Today, She’s the Mentor

After more than 25 years in the legal field, Kornblut is now the one offering opportunities and advice. In one case, she helped a bright, competent Dwellworks employee still in her mid-20s land a spot on a nonprofit board. It’s a very unusual role for someone so young, but Kornblut sees it as an important growth driver and a key step in the young woman’s executive training.

“Now that I’m in a leadership position at Dwellworks,” she noted, “I’ve really enjoyed helping young people succeed.”

Kornblut, who earned her law degree from the University of Miami, helps her own staff grow by offering complete transparency and thorough communication as much as possible. As GC, there is a great deal of information that she cannot disclose to those outside the Legal Department. She trusts her staff implicitly, though, when it comes to sharing sensitive information.

“I don’t like organizations where there are agendas and information is carefully doled out to people,” Kornblut said. “I think it’s important that everyone on the team have a good vision of what your goals are, what your mission is and what the company is trying to achieve.”

As a result, Kornblut spends time in staff meetings discussing a variety of projects, including those she may be handling herself. Communicating with others on her staff offers them an opportunity to learn more about all the legal matters facing the Cleveland-headquartered relocation services company as well as offer their own input. She also encourages her team at Dwellworks (and previously at her former companies) to stretch themselves by taking on tough projects. While that sometimes means staff members make slightly different decisions than she might make, Kornblut appreciates their initiative, supports their decisions and maintains open dialogue to provide room for personal and professional growth.

“I present things to them in a non-confrontational, conversational manner so they don’t feel attacked—make it a learning moment instead of appearing critical of their work,” she said. “And I also make sure that I point out aspects of their work I thought they did really well. So I think it’s all about how you communicate with people.”

“Another thing that I try to do is keep an open-door policy,” Kornblut added. “Sometimes it gets very difficult to get work done, but particularly the people on my team feel comfortable interrupting me at any point in the day to ask me a question. They know they can ask me about something they don’t feel comfortable with, and when I feel like they’re at a point where they’ve mastered a particular area, I’ll say, ‘Come back to me if you have any questions, but feel free to run with it.’”

Every Day is Different

One of the aspects of being an in-house attorney that Kornblut enjoys most is the chance it presents for her and her staff to run in so many different directions on any given day. Kornblut earned her bachelor’s degree in Business Analysis from Indiana University, and she still gets to dabble in issues pertaining to finance, supply chain management, human resources and related areas.

“You get so involved with the business,” she said. “It allows you to become not only a legal adviser, but a strategist as well. Every day is different than the day before, and that’s what I love about it.”

Kornblut missed that diversity early in her career when corporate restructuring and fear of entering the job market during a down economy led her to move from the Office of General Counsel at Ernst & Young to a spot in the accounting firm’s State and Local Taxation Department.

“I got into it and just did not like the taxation area. It just was not for me,” she said. “I wasn’t excited about it. But it taught me you never want to go into something you don’t enjoy just to get a paycheck.”

It is advice Kornblut often offers to young professionals, though she realizes these up-and-comers’ most valuable lessons will come from traveling their own unique and sometimes rocky road.

“Fortunately, I’m currently in a terrific position,” Kornblut said, “but there have been a few bumps along the way.” ♦

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Love Thy Job & Thy Family

As a lawyer and mother of two girls, now ages 21 and 24, Kornblut has faced the same struggles many working parents find themselves up against. Hectic mornings started with dropping the kids off at daycare and calling in to work at the last minute when they were sick. To cope, she and her former husband decided to hire in-house help.

“Having a nanny come to the house made things a lot easier,” she said. “And then, when they got older with school activities, I actually hired drivers to drive them around.”

At times, it was an unconventional approach, particularly after Kornblut and her husband divorced when her youngest daughter was 13.

“But, with my kids, it actually worked out really well because I wasn’t there hovering over them,” she said. “I was certainly there when they needed me, but they had to get their homework done; they were forced to monitor their own schedules and be independent. Both of them turned out to be extremely good students.”

Kornblut’s youngest daughter, now a senior at Boston University, recently wrote about her mother’s lessons in self-reliance as part of a law school entrance essay.

“Having a strong female role model, I think, helped her tremendously,” Kornblut said. “And she wrote about it in her essay—how she feels that, irrespective of her gender, she’s able to do anything. She feels very empowered.”

Finding true work-life balance requires parents to love their jobs as well as their families. It also means extending that sense of empowerment beyond the office to include family time.

“I think, over the years, I set certain boundaries with my employers,” Kornblut said. “Give them an honest day’s work, but when there’s an important event for your child, you should be able to stand up and say, ‘I’ll be in the office a little bit later.’”

Gerri's Key Partners:
Benesch, Friedlander, Coplan & Aronoff (Mergers & Acquisition Services)

Charlene Oldham

Contributing Writer at Forefront Magazine
Charlene Oldham is a St. Louis-based teacher and freelancer.

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